An Entrepreneur Says Goodbye: The Story of a Chinese Failure


Early this morning, the China Business News ran an interesting feature on a failed Chinese entrepreneur. If you can read Chinese, I suggest the original, but for those who can’t, I thought it also would make sense to share the story here. What follows is my own summary of the story, based on the China Business News piece.

Chen Jun’s first job after graduation was working for a huge state-owned company in Wuhan. He had majored in insulation engineering, and it quickly became clear to him that he was being groomed for promotion at the Wuhan job. In the long-term, he could expect job stability, a decent salary, and the social status that comes from being a mid-level manager at a state-owned enterprise. It’s a position many Chinese people would have envied, especially back in the late 1990s when Chen was there. But in less than a year, he chose to walk away. His salary — 800 RMB a month (equivalent to $126 now, but worth even less in the late 90s) — wasn’t high enough and he disliked the workplace culture.

He was also captivated by the boom that was happening in internet technology. In 2000, inspired by what we now know to have been the first internet bubble, he founded and launched his own startup. At the time, the joke in China was that there was a venture capitalist hiding in every tree in China, just waiting for internet startups to walk by so they could shower them in money. Chen had dreams his company would become great and that he’d be invited to speak at Harvard about his successes. But before the company had time to really develop, the bubble burst, and he was forced to close up shop.

The failure devastated Chen, both emotionally and financially. He took up temporary work at a print shop that was owned by a friend and eventually put the failure out of his mind. He got married, had a son, developed a gambling problem that caused a lot of friction in his home, and excelled in his work at the print shop.

But his dream of founding a startup hadn’t died, and after a few years, he founded another company. This one was more closely tied to his expertise in insulation, his company would sell central air conditioning. This time, he threw himself fully into the lifestyle of a Chinese boss, spending his time wining and dining important friends and officials to establish the connections he thought could help his business succeed. Unfortunately, this didn’t have much of an effect on the company, which he just couldn’t seem to get to turn a profit. Eventually, it closed up shop.

Around this same time, though, Chen Jun made a lot of money in real estate. He did this sort of by accident; he just happened to be buying a house as Shanghai’s real estate market was just starting to take off, and he quickly realized he could make a ton of money by just buying an apartment, waiting a few months for the prices to rise even higher, and then selling it. He flipped several apartments this way, and at the same time made what turned out to be a wise venture investment in another company that brought him exponential returns. Suddenly, Chen Jun, the twice-failed entrepreneur, was rich.

He still hadn’t given up on founding a startup, though, and he was excited by Alibaba’s B2B e-commerce model. He came up with a plan for his own B2B e-commerce site, and against the advice of friends, founded it. Chen was counting on a massive upswing in the market, sort of like what he had experienced in the real estate market, but it never came, or at least Chen’s company couldn’t wait for it. The company quickly lost several hundred thousand RMB, and Chen pulled the plug.

Chen was still wealthy, of course, but he wasn’t happy, and he didn’t think highly of himself. His financial success was, he felt, a fluke, and his real attempts at success — his three startups — had all failed. If this story were a movie, this would be the part where we see Chen walking the streets of Shanghai in the rain before suddenly thinking of another idea — a great one — that would lead him to his dream: a successful startup.

But this isn’t a movie, and Chen might have walked the streets of Shanghai in the rain, but the epiphany never came. Instead, Chen emigrated to Canada. He wanted to start over in a new place, and he wanted to ensure his son got a “normal” education. He also wanted to live somewhere with an effective social security system, as his failed startups haven’t left him fully prepared for retirement. He hopes to work as an engineer in Canada, and may also start a Chinese restaurant on the side.

Although the China Business News story is unfortunately light on details about how Chen’s startups operated, I think there are some lessons here for entrepreneurs. Timing is important. Luck is important. And success is not guaranteed, even with hard work and sacrifice. Sometimes you just fail, and when you try again, you fail again. It’s depressing, but it’s also reality. And I think it’s worth sharing this sort of story to balance out the stories of success we’re surrounded by day in and day out, stories that make success seem like something that is inevitable.

It isn’t. Just ask Chen Jun.

[Image via Shutterstock]

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